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Microsoft's storage push

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Data protection
Microsoft released System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) software last year, a disk-based software recovery application. As of this writing, there have been more than 200,000 beta downloads and trials. While groundbreaking for its ease of use and bringing disk-based recovery to small file-serving environments, the current DPM release has its limitations (see "Pros and cons of Data Protection Manager, Version 1.0."). However, priced at $995 per license for three servers ($150 per additional host), Microsoft is changing users' expectations about what advanced data protection should cost.

Pros and cons of Data Protection Manager, Version 1.0

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DPM 1.0 has few pretensions of grandeur. The easy-to-manage, disk-based backup application resides on a dedicated server running Windows Server 2003, and supports NAS and SAN storage. DPM requires deploying agents on each of the file servers it protects. It uses Active Directory for discovery and wizard-driven installation, as well as for its security controls. DPM creates recovery objects through a combination of byte-level replication and Microsoft's snapshot technology, Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS). It can create up to eight user-selected recovery images a day (with a limit of 64 per volume).

DPM isn't a "continuous" any-point-in-time recovery product. The logs DPM uses to synchronize data changes against the VSS replica are created once an hour, so there's a potential for some data loss; however, recovery efficiency is improved by the checkpoint capabilities that automate recovery to the last viable replica. API integration is supported with traditional tape backup applications from all major vendors. When combined with a tape solution for long-term archival, DPM is a low-cost, data-protection product for a small- or medium-sized Windows file-server deployment.

Expect DPM's playing field to broaden as Microsoft says future releases (V2.0 is expected by the end of this year) will support direct application integration with SQL Server, Exchange, SharePoint Server and the 2007 Longhorn Server release. Other planned improvements include bare-metal recovery, high availability, SAN integration and a centralized management interface. Within two years, DPM might begin to look much more like a true enterprise-caliber data-protection offering--albeit, Windows only--that could compete with the likes of EMC, IBM, Symantec and the range of startups that comprise today's midmarket.

With regards to data protection, Microsoft is using its massive installed base to drive familiarity with a disruptively priced offering in the hope that users will ante up for the real deal in V2.0. Microsoft has been successful with similar tactics before, so it's safe to assume it will emerge as a formidable competitor in data-protection software within three to four years.

Remote-office infrastructure
Remote- and branch-office IT issues are top of mind at many companies, often accounting for 30% or more of a company's entire IT budget. Storage-related efforts are key factors, including data set consolidation across multiple sites, data replication over the WAN and remote-office file service delivery. Microsoft has talked a lot about branch-office support, but has released few products that address the issue. Past releases of Windows Server have fallen short of providing the features that would make it a truly viable platform for managing remote offices, including inadequate replication capabilities and data compression over the WAN. Most of these shortcomings have been addressed in the R2 release, with a range of new features that make Windows a more attractive platform to the distributed enterprise.

Most notably, the Windows Server 2003 R2 release includes substantial improvements to the Microsoft Distributed File System (DFS), which will enable it to provide centralized namespace management across file servers in distributed geographies. It can support user-defined policies to publish, collect or replicate content across approximately 1,000 connections per implementation. The namespace management features are also greatly improved, with controls for server/site failback, closest site referrals, administration delegation, bandwidth throttling and targeting priorities. IT managers who have grappled with a multisite Windows Server 2000 or 2003 DFS implementation will welcome the new release; it simply looks and feels much more like an enterprise-class distributed content management tool.

Many users will be overjoyed to discover that Microsoft has replaced its nearly unworkable File Replication Service engine with a new DFS Replication Engine, which optimizes Windows data transfers between servers and their clients over the WAN for the first time. The new DFS Replication Engine uses compression algorithms to reduce the size of data transfers, making replication feasible for enterprise workloads.

Microsoft is also partnering with Tacit Networks Inc., a Windows-based provider of WAFS technology. WAFS products have become increasingly attractive because they enable IT teams to remove storage from remote offices and replace it with remote gateways that use the WAN to link back to centralized data stores.

Microsoft's intentions to be a player in the remote-office arena are clear, but it faces significant challenges from established players like Cisco Systems Inc., IBM and Novell Inc. By making the Windows platform friendly to IT managers, Microsoft achieves its main objective of protecting the platform from competitive encroachment. From a user perspective, this means more built-in management flexibility for distributed Windows deployments and the ability to blend remote-office approaches.

This was first published in March 2006

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